CD Reviews - 5 Miles From Town
by Jim Hynes
The string band Ebony Hillbillies hail from New York City and have already created quite a stir by appearing on television and hallowed venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. This is their fifth recording. They are carrying on the traditions of black American string bands that extend back to bands like The Mississippi Sheiks, The Memphis Jug Band, and certainly more recently, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Theirs is a mission to both revere tradition and leverage this legacy to offer current social commentary.
The Ebony Hillbillies seamlessly blend pop, country, bluegrass, folk, blues and jazz organically to get feet stomping, and more importantly to shake consciences too. As such, they have become prominent at festivals, workshops, visual artist collaborations and school programs. Material here ranges from traditional fiddle jams like the opening “Hog Eyed Man” to Willie Dion’s “Wang Dang Doodle” to Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to recent police shootings as heard on “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “I’m On My Way to Brooklyn.” There are the requisite gospel touches too both in the latter and “Where He Leads Me.”
The seven-piece group is led by Henrique Prince (fiddle, vocals) with Norris Bennett (banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar, vocals), Gloria Thomas Gassaway (vocals and bones), Altanah Salter (shaker, vocals), Newman Taylor Baker (washboard, percussion) and A.R. (Ali Rahman) (”cowboy” percussion). Key member acoustic bassist William “Salty Bill” Salter is a three-time Grammy winner with pop hits like “Where Is the Lord” and “Just the Two of Us.”
Theirs is a raw, unadorned acoustic sound that could just as easily come from a front porch as a recording studio. Yet, the background vocals and ambient sounds are at times urban too. Mixing three instrumentals with mostly vocal tunes, the band shares lead vocals and varies both instrumentation and rhythmic approaches throughout. Passion burns strongly, especially on the socially conscious tunes. Yet, they display a remarkable range, taking on romantic material like the Bonnie Raitt tune, and the cautionary “Fork in the Road.” Passion burns strongly, especially on the socially conscious tunes.
The paradoxical fusing of the traditional sound and instruments with current issues and musical influences has a way of taking you back in time but somehow the lasting impression is remarkably contemporary.
By Dee Dee McNeil
THE EBONY HILLBILLIES –“5 MILES FROM TOWN” Independent Label
Henrique Prince, violin/vocals;Norris Washington Bennett,banjo/mountain dulcimer/guitar/vocals;Gloria Thomas Gassaway,bones/percussion/vocals; William (Salty Bill) Salter, acoustic bass; Allanah Salter,shaker/percussion/vocals; Newman Taylor Baker,washboard percussion; A.R. (Ali Rahman or Cowboy),percussion.
Violinist, Regina Carter first introduced me to roots of African-American Hillbilly music. As soon as the first track peeled off this CD, I was familiar with the genre. This first track is titled “Hog Eyed Man” and it’s a happy, celebratory composition. Willie Dixon is one of my favorite blues composers and blues artists. He wrote the next song this ensemble performs titled, “Wang Dang Doodle”. The Ebony Hillbillies make me feel comfortable and happy, like I’m at a family gathering. The string-work of this unique group revives a musical history from the past. They sound ‘country’ and Appalachian, but are actually from New York. This recording was made in Jamaica, Queens. The Ebony Hillbillies include some modern music, like Bonnie Raitt’s hit record, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. But their arrangement is tinged with the American legacy string-band sound. This ensemble also dips into a political bag, taking up community issues with their music and documenting them in song. For example, the ongoing problem that is prevalent between policemen across America and people of color is addressed on “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot.”
For the most part, their outlandishly joyful music and honest interpretations of an art form rarely heard is infectious. Heralded as the premier African-American string band in America, this unique ensemble has graced the stages of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and made various TV appearances including on the BBC and ABC’s “Good Morning America. Led by violinists Henrique Prince, they blend bluegrass, folk songs, jazz, country blues and pop, giving each tune their own unique stamp of approval. Everything they sing is infused with African-American gospel church roots and the historic work songs of slave farmers. Their style and reflective presenta- tion are endearing and they offer listeners a freshness and honesty poured into their music that is addictive. This is their fifth group release. Others available on CD are: Sabrina’s Holiday, I Thought You Knew, Barefoot and Flying, and finally their 2015 release titled, Slappin’ A Rabbit – Live!
By Leonid Auskern
Blues is black music, country is white music. So it was in America once. But today everything is completely different. For about fifty years (approximately), the blues has been playing, and it's playing, both white and black musicians. The same can be said about such directions as rhythm-and-blues, soul (even the term blue-eyed soul appeared) and, especially, jazz. With country music, not everything is so obvious, but this direction is not now the exclusive “hunting ground” for wheat-haired boys and girls from the Appalachian Mountains, the Midwest or Texas. And the best example of this is the work of the ensemble from New York The Ebony Hillbillies.
This group began with street concerts at busy urban intersections and went all the way to the scenes of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, to the studios of America's leading television corporations. The composition of the ensemble The Ebony Hillbillies is in many ways unique. This is a relic today symbiosis of exclusively string and percussion instruments. Leader of the group Enrique Prince plays the violin, Norris Bennett, in addition to guitar and banjo, also uses such a rare regional string instrument as the mountain dulcimer (it is also called the Appalachian dulcimer). And besides contrabassist William "Salti Bill" Salter, the rhythm group includes a representative percussionist team, which also has relic exotic acts, like a washboard, in its arsenal.
And this is the composition of The Ebony Hillbillies playing music in which the blues, country, rock and pop music harmoniously coexist. At least that's how I would describe the program of the last album of the group 5 Miles From Town. Of the twelve tracks, there are two purely instrumental pieces: the starting Hog Eyed Man and the composition with the colorful and politically incorrect “southern” title I’d Rather Be A Nigga Than A Po ’White Man. Both of these pieces are traditional, old melodies arranged by The Ebony Hillbillies. Most of them are on the album. But there is authoring music also arranged for this lineup, for example, the gorgeous blues of Willie Dixon Wang Dang Doodle or I Can't Make You Love Me by Bonnie Wright. There are compositions that are considered in the spirit of classic country music (I'm On My Way To Brooklyn), there is Smoke Robinson's rhythm and blues lyric melody Fork In The Road, there are still blues (Carroll County Blues), there is a traditional African American style. workers' songs call and response composition Another Man Done Gone / Hands Up Don't Shoot, sharply social and topical (this is about the police killing often innocent people on the streets due to the fact that the cops assumed that they were dealing with armed and dangerous persons. In general, each (literally - each) track is interesting in its own way, and in combination with an unusual group sound and a high level of performance, you listen 5 Miles From Town in one breath. I highly recommend not to miss this album.
By Jonathan Widran
THE EBONY HILLBILLIES, 5 Miles From Town
You first hear the raw, organic, Americana laced magic in the hoppin’ fiddle and streetcorner percussion that grabs your heart on “Hog Eyed Man,” the exuberant instrumental that launches 5 Miles From Town - the latest full length album from string band sensations The Ebony Hillbillies.
From there, you’ll be captivated by the part vocal/ part instrumental swirl of R&B, bluegrass, country, jazz, folk, what have you that will help you understand how this five man, two women phenomenon - renowned as “The Last String Band in America” – has taken their game from the street corners of NYC to Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the BBC and Good Morning America.
The group is the vision of Harlem born, Queens raised violinist and vocalist Henrique Prince, who could have been a member of a symphony orchestra but decided on another path and mission. His interest in 1930s guitar-fiddle group The Mississippi Sheiks and other legendary string bands sparked his initial interest. Then he met the man who would become his partner in infectious polyrhythmic crime - banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar and singer Norris Washington Bennett - after an audition for an NYC bluegrass band in 2004.
The ensemble grew from there to include such multi-talented greats as Gloria Thomas Gassaway (on vocals and bones) and three time Grammy winning songwriter/bassist William “Salty Bill” Salter. Together they create a joyful noise with echoes of a fascinating past that deeply transcends racial and cultural boundaries.
While it’s great just getting caught up in the infectious fun, the Hillbillies include a few heavier themed slices of social consciousness, including “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” and “I’m on My Way To Brooklyn.” It says a lot about their originals and interpretations of traditional pieces that their cover of the familiar “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” while sultry and enjoyable, is the least essential tune on their set list.
by Duane Verh
Sifting the likes of Prince and Smokey Robinson through the fabric of traditional American string band music is a more natural sounding affair than it may seem in the hands- and particularly the fingers- of this spirited NYC-spawned ensemble. Earthy adaptations of the afore-mentioned hitmakers’ fare- “Cream” and “Fork In The Road”, respectively- appear alongside the Willie Dixon gem “Wang Dang Doodle”, the Bonnie Raitt-popularized “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and a sprinkling of traditional jams. Particularly potent is a culturally-updated rendition of “Another Man Done Gone”, subtitled “Hands Up Don’t Shoot”.
The Ebony Hillbillies bring current events to life with an old-school flair on “5 Miles From Town”
By Dodie Miller-Gould
December 14, 2018
Touted as America’s “premier African-American string band,” The Ebony Hillbillies sound like nothing most listeners can prepare for. But, for audiences well-acquainted with string bands and blues from the 1910s and 1920s, the sound of the Ebony Hillbillies will sound hauntingly familiar.
On their fifth CD, “5 Miles From Town,” The Ebony Hillbillies are taking on not only music forms that are roughly a century old, but they are sometimes infusing the lyrics with details from 21st century social unrest. Among the dozen songs on the album (forthcoming Jan. 4, 2019) are the blues classic “Wang Dang Doodle” and the old-school styled, “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” that details the deaths of black men at the hands of the police, or some other authority, as in the case of Trayvon Martin.
But it isn’t just blues and social commentary for the group, although some would argue that the very existence of this band is a form of social commentary. Mixed in are Gospel songs, in particular “Where He Leads Me.”
Probably the most interesting facet of this ten-piece group from Manhattan is the adherence to using instruments from yesteryear and in the string band tradition. There is no overly electric sound. Though there is a guitar, that is the most modern instrument. Instead, there are bones, banjos, a shaker, washboard, a mountain dulcimer and violin. The singing styles that the singers use (most of the vocals are done by women but Norris Washington Bennett does help out vocally, in addition to playing stringed instruments) is decidedly vintage. This is not a recording that attempts to make older songs sound updated with the use of certain modern singing techniques. The gritty, soulful, bluesy sound of the songs has an almost indescribable effect on listeners.
“Wang Dang Doodle” by The Ebony Hillbillies
This version of the blues classic sounds a great deal like the version made famous by Koko Taylor, minus the electric bomp of Taylor’s rendition. The female vocals are deep and rich. The song’s lyrics are a mouthful, but the singer manages to get them all out clearly. The musicians do a more than capable job of bringing to life the rollicking up and down blues beat of the track. True to the original, this version of “Wang Dang Doodle” could also be played at parties.
“Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” by The Ebony Hillbillies
Essentially, this is the blues stripped down. The vocals are arranged in a call and response format. The lyrics never name names, but anyone who has watched the news in the past several years knows exactly who the women are singing about. For instance, “They shot him in his car (they shot him in his car),” and “he had a hoodie on (he had a hoodie on).” The lyrics speak for themselves and the rich unadorned vocals give them the gravitas needed.
The Ebony Hillbillies started on the streets of Manhattan, but have performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, on “Good Morning America,” on the BBC and elsewhere. Hopefully, the group’s presence will continue to grow. Their four previous CD’s have sold thousands of copies, but the style and message of The Ebony Hillbillies need to be heard by everyone. The New York Times noted that the group’s work is a “wonderful connection to all our humanity,” and most listeners will agree.
EBONY HILLBILLIES/5 Miles From Town: How cool is this? Carolina Chocolate Drops hook up with Gus Cannon and they all take steroids. Down home string band music like the kind the Lomax’s used to find but with better recording techniques. These guys just plain, freaking rock like no other. Killer stuff for the ultimate back porch party.
CHRIS SPECTOR, Editor and Publisher
Phenomenal African American string band The Ebony Hillbillies – 5 Miles From Town
Dick Metcalf, editor, Contemporary Fusion Reviews
December 13, 2018
Phenomenal African American string band The Ebony Hillbillies – 5 MILES FROM TOWN: When I lived in Alabama (eons ago, it seems), “string bands” were generally associated with white guys & corn liquor at weekend-long festivals, I guess… this band sets that stereotype to be ’bout as false as false can be… you don’t have to just take my word for it, either… just watch this year-old performance from the group (not from the album) – they just ROCK:
…there is a channel for The Ebony Hillbillies, so be sure to SUBSCRIBE to it.
On the album, they bring their phenomenal style to brilliant life on songs like the old standard “Wang Dang Doodle” – like you’ve never heard it before, folks… fresh and full of soul!
I can’t help but be reminded of some of those ol’ “Chicken Shack” scenes from L.A. (Lower Alabama) I used to participate in as I listen to their playing on “Carroll County Blues” – haul out that sour mash & git on DOW-un, people.
A real cast of characters in their lineup, too…. Henrique Prince on violin & vocals; Norris Washington Bennett doing banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar & vocals; Gloria Thomas Gassaway on bones (percussion & vocals; William (Salty Bill) Salter doing acoustic bass; Allanah Salter on shaker (percussion & vocals; Newman Taylor Baker playing washboard percussion and A.R. (Ali Rahman) doing cowboy percussion… it really all comes together on my personal favorite of the dozen songs offered up, too… “Fork In The Road” features some of the prettiest violin you’ve ever heard on the intro, and morphs right over into one of the most soul-filled pieces you’ll hear in 2018… a truly excellent piece!
I give The Ebony Hillbillies a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an “EQ” (energy quotient) rating of 4.98… get more information on The Ebony Hillbillies website. Rotcod Zzaj
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